We are on the verge of some big-time clashes in the American Athletic Conference in the coming weeks, starting on Saturday night with the undefeated SMU Mustangs traveling to face a red-hot Houston Cougars team.
SMU (7-0, 3-0 AAC) will be seeking its second 8-0 start in the last three seasons under head coach Sonny Dykes, whose name has popped up in recent headlines with the Texas Tech job opening up. "Look, we're focused on getting ready for Houston, and I'm not ever going to talk about other jobs," he said, according to Joe Hoyt with The Dallas Morning News. "I just don't think it's fair to anybody. Look, our guys are excited to play, we're focused to play, we know how big of a game this is for our program, and no one's worried about anything than playing well Saturday night." The Mustangs are coming off a blowout victory over Tulane last week, 55-26.
The Cougars (6-1, 4-0) have rattled off six straight victories since a season-opening loss to Texas Tech, defeating East Carolina 31-24 in overtime last weekend after a five-hour delay due to severe weather in the area. The Pirates held Houston to its second-lowest offensive output of the season — the first time in six weeks the Cougars didn't post more than 380 yards of total offense as a team. "I knew they were good on defense," Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said after the game. "I knew that we were going to have problems with some of their stuff. I've got to figure some stuff out on offense. There's no mistake about that."
Expect some points on Saturday night as the matchup will feature the No. 1 and No. 3 scoring offenses in the AAC.
No. 19 SMU at Houston
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Houston -1
When SMU Has the Ball
Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai continues to excel in his first year as the SMU starting quarterback, still tied for first in the country in touchdown passes (29) in just seven games, averaging more than 330 passing yards a contest. It helps when you have one of the best wide receiver corps in the country with Danny Gray, Reggie Roberson Jr., and Rashee Rice, who have combined for 64 percent of the team's production and 18 total touchdowns between them. Against Tulane, it was Gray who had the big day with eight receptions for 140 yards. Another former Oklahoma transfer, tight end Grant Calcaterra, gives this offense yet another weapon in the passing game, now sitting 14th in the country at the position with 26 receptions and three scores.
Not that this offense needs any boost averaging 43 points per game, but the Mustangs should get one in the form of starting running back Ulysses Bentley IV, who Dykes stated will be full-go for Saturday. Bentley had been dealing with an undisclosed injury, seeing just three offensive snaps in the last two games, but will re-assume his starting role where he was averaging more than seven yards per attempt. Backup Tre Siggers has filled in admirably with four rushing touchdowns in the last three weeks. It could be tough sledding for both running backs against the No. 1 rush defense in the conference, as Houston is allowing just 2.89 yards per carry.
When Houston Has the Ball
Surprising to say for a Holgorsen-led offense, but nothing stands out statistically as a major strength this season. Quarterback Clayton Tune continues to play relatively mistake-free football, completing 69 percent of his passes with just two interceptions in the last six games. Numbers are down across the board, though, for the senior quarterback, who is averaging just 204 passing yards per game on 27 attempts. Both of those are significantly lower than last year, and Tune is not running as much due to a back injury sustained a few weeks ago.
Where Houston is getting a boost is on the ground with true freshman running back Alton McCaskill, who scored the game-winning touchdown against East Carolina. Since inserting McCaskill into the starting lineup, the Cougars are averaging more than five yards per rushing attempt, with the freshman accounting for nine of the team's 15 ground scores.
Similar to Houston's offense, the SMU defense doesn't stand out in any one particular statistical category this season under the direction of first-year coordinator Jim Leavitt, ranking fifth in the conference in defending the run and allowing 249 yards per game via the pass — sixth in the AAC.
Stakes are high on Saturday evening as both teams look to keep pace with Cincinnati atop the AAC standings. While the Cougars' six-game win streak since their season-opening loss has undoubtedly been impressive, it must be noted that the combined record of the six opponents during that span is just 13-28 with no team having a winning record. SMU's offense is the best group on the field and the outcome will reflect that with the Mustangs winning what should be a tightly-contested game throughout.
Prediction: SMU 34, Houston 31
Podcast: Week 9 Preview, Predictions + Picks Against the Spread & Texas Tech Coaching Search
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.